This week was our first chilly morning at Forest School - the Herons had to think through what they needed to be comfortable. Many of us (myself included) guessed wrong and either were chilly or went back into school to get something warmer. Yet another thing to learn.
This is my first time trying to teach outdoors on a regular basis and for an extended period of time. The culmination of our first month seems a good time to reflect:
Growth in Executive Function - One of the biggest surprises of our work so far has been a noticeable difference in executive functioning including planning and attention control. In the first week, students had to go back into the building almost constantly for a pencil, outdoor shoes, rain jackets, snacks, bathroom, water bottle refilling. The second week went better (in part because I had done some learning and put up a more detailed list of what to pack). We have since honed our list making and the Herons have made large strides in being prepared. We have also gotten much better at keeping track of our stuff when we move about the "campus" (as the Herons have begun calling the school grounds.)
Routine vs. Opportunity - I am attempting to find the balance for the Herons between doing our routine work such as reading and writing outside and putting aside that work for unique outdoor opportunities. On the one hand, Forest School has the potential to be very different from our regular work day. On the other hand, students have found that their "routine" work is enhanced when they are outside. Many have mentioned how calming they find it when they read outdoors. They have mentioned that they get "deeper into their books." Others said that writing was easier, "Because I can just look around and write it." I've attempted to find a hybrid. We read and write most Wednesday mornings. Sometimes I guide the writing prompt to fit our surroundings. I also attempt to use the outdoor space in a way that enhances our work. Recently in math, we were working on the Deka Tree, a tree that has 10 trunks with 10 branches with 10 twigs with 10 leaves. One trunk, one branch, one twig, and one leaf is cut off...how many leaves are left? We used the plaza to sketch and explore the idea - the large space lending itself to the large numbers we were working with. This coming week, we'll be using a human of a known height standing at the base of a tree to estimate the height of a tree.
As our work progresses I'll look to use find the ways that Forest School can enhance what we are learning...a lot like our philosophy around technology.
Same old, same old - Another question I am exploring is that of repetition. Last Wednesday, about half the Herons wanted to begin our woodscraft hour by whittling...something they had already done in the last two sessions. My impulse as a teacher was to urge them to "try something different." But I checked that urge. They felt they still had work to do in this area...they were still finding it satisfying. Maria Montessori wrote about "sensitive periods" in which children are absorbed in a single activity and are driven to repeat it again and again until they reach satisfaction. I have seen children in this state of flow (as some call it) and it is something they are rarely given the chance to satiate.
I allowed students to whittle again if they wished...perhaps at some point soon they will ask, "What's next?" Or, maybe, they won't. They will find joy in stripping stick after stick and whittling them down to a point. We don't give students enough opportunities to define what it means to be "done."
Time - Our Wednesdays go incredibly quickly. Our short mornings are shortened further by the logistics of getting outside (and resetting our shelters...) I have eight things planned every day - four of which we get to. We are covering greater distances during our work and that takes time. There's also a lot to notice and talk about, so that takes time. Finally, there are the unexpected discoveries...(read on.)
Serendipity - I had planned a lesson on forest forensics in which we were going to take a short walk around the campus to look at trees struck by lightning and others that had been infested by insects but had recovered and were still bearing the scars to tell us of their past. We stopped at a small white oak to check out some holes in its bark...suddenly someone found a fuzzy gall, then someone else found one. Where were they? Some were on the veins...others were farther out on the leaf. They were different kinds. Children started opening them up. A larva was found. What kind? What would it become? How would it survive the winter? Did they hurt the tree? By the time students were done with this exploration we "should have" been moving on to the next part of our morning. But this would have wasted the tremendous momentum we had. We went on to spend another half hour looking at trees for signs of their past.
Every time we go outside, we end up with more questions than what we started with. Even when we are reading, a child will look up and notice something new about a cloud or someone will notice there aren't any more yellow jackets and wonder why and when it happened. Each of those questions could be unfolded and unfolded. Our first read aloud, One Wild Bird at a Time, was full of these kinds of observations and discoveries. The writer was constantly seeing things he wasn't expecting and developing questions about them. The Herons are following his example. It's very exciting to be a part of.